Randal Grichuk has taken no at bats since singling in the top of the ninth in Game of the National League Championship Series against the Giants yet his potential role keeps changing. At the start of the offseason he was set to fight for a starting role in right field. After the tragic death of Oscar Taveras, Grichuk's name appeared alone atop the depth chart in right field.
One month later, the Cardinals have a new starting rightfielder, Jason Heyward, leaving little playing time for a backup. With Matt Holliday entrenched in left field, Jon Jay the starting centerfielder, and Jason Heyward the everyday guy in right, Randal Grichuk appears to be facing an uphill battle for playing time in the outfield along with Peter Bourjos, one of the very best defensive outfielders in baseball. Grichuk is still just 23 years old. He will likely have a role on the Cardinals in 2015, bringing a power bat off the bench the Cardinals often lacked in 2014, but in terms of development, he might best be served getting everyday plate appearances and more time in centerfield in Memphis.
The Cardinals first called Grichuk up to the majors in late April last season. At the time, he was called up ahead of more highly regarded prospects in Taveras and Stephen Piscotty. I thought the move made sense given a lack of plate appearances on the major league roster and was somewhat indicative of how the Cardinals viewed Grichuk as a prospect.
Grichuk is a better fit as a power bat off the bench for St. Louis than Robinson, and keeping Taveras and Piscotty in the minors is an indicator of how important the Cardinals view those two players for the future. Grichuk is a solid prospect, but not expected to be an impact player at the major league level absent more development. While promoting the less-ready hitter to the major leagues appears counter-intuitive, given the good potential of Piscotty and the potential for stardom for the still only 21-year old Taveras, promoting Grichuk for limited at bats makes the most sense when trying to balance the short and long term needs of the St. Louis Cardinals.
When Grichuk came up in April, the book on Grichuk was out. Pitchers attacked him with breaking pitches and the results were not pretty. In 48 plate appearances split among two shorts stints, Grichuk had just six hits and three walks against 15 strikeouts. The lack of immediate success is not surprising. He was placed in a tough role without a lot of playing time and had just one month of plate appearances above the Double-A level prior to promotion.
A really good piece from Brian MacPherson in the Providence Journal recently discussed the difficulty in moving from the minors to the majors.
"The gap between Triple-A and the big leagues has never been larger," Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington said. "You hear it from scouts. You hear it from major-league guys. You hear it from minor-league guys. That's our biggest challenge - that gap becomes readily apparent when you see guys who have been dominant in Triple-A come up and struggle in the big leagues."
The piece also quotes Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer on Anthony Rizzo's breakout after initial struggling as well as the struggles of some top prospects in 2014.
"You have to stay patient with guys," Hoyer said this week, at Major League Baseball's general managers' meetings. "If you believe in the player as a person, if you believe in his ability, you realize you might have some choppiness with the performance. If you believe in the person and believe in their ability to understand their weaknesses and make adjustments, that goes a long way."
Grichuk has had his ups and downs. He did not continue his hot hitting in Triple-A the second half of last season, posting monthly averages and OBPs below .260 and .300, respectively, although his power remained. He was likely a September callup candidate, but those plans changed when Shane Robinson went down with an injury in late August. Grichuk came up and showed good results in September before struggling in the postseason.
The Cardinals clearly believe in Grichuk. They liked his ability to adjust when he was in the Angels farm system and liked what they saw in Spring Training earlier this year. Mike Matheny is a major believer when it comes to Grichuk, starting him throughout the playoffs.
Randal's one of those players that I don't think many people have heard much about. I think they're going to continue to hear about him, one, because of his skill set he has, but, two, just the makeup. This guy's relentless already. He goes about it the right way. Mix that with what he does on the talent side, both offensively and defensively, and on the bases and he's going to be an exciting player to watch.
The question now for the Cardinals is how much do they believe in Grichuk. With Holliday, Jay, and Heyward in the outfield, and little reason to believe Grichuk will play first, the avenue that helped Matt Carpenter, Allen Craig, and Matt Adams to regular playing time is not available for Grichuk. Still just 23, having missed developmental time in 2010 and 2011 due to injury, and questions remaining about Grichuk's abilities as a hitter and potential centerfielder, the Cardinals will be faced with a tough decision regarding Grichuk's placement in 2015.
The Cardinals could let Grichuk receive more time in Memphis as an everyday centerfielder until they are more confident he has nothing left to prove, increasing his value to the major league roster when the time comes. The other option is to give him sporadic playing time at the major league level, something that is hard for all players to do, let alone a 23-year-old with limited major league experience.
Bringing Grichuk up with the big club in April is likely better for the Cardinals absent another move this winter. Grichuk provides a right-handed power option in a lineup full of lefties. However, Grichuk could still develop as an everyday player. Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos are controlled only through 2016 and the low minors has question marks in centerfield. Putting Grichuk in Triple-A could be viewed as a step back for a player who ended the season as a starter, but it could also be seen as a signal that the Cardinals have bigger plans for Grichuk in the future.